Albino Marine Mammals: the ghosts of the sea

Photo credit: Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari

Photo credit: Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari

According to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, albinos have been spotted in 28 species of marine mammals. This number breaks down to 21 cetaceans and seven pinnipeds with albinos among their ranks. Albinos are most well known for their white or very pale coloring and pink eyes or at least that’s what I thought.

But according to the encyclopedia, being albino also comes with “abnormalities in the optic system, including incorrect connections of the optic fibers between the retina and the brain, and incomplete development of the fovea, the area of the retina where the sharpest vision is located.” Having these types of eye problems is actually the best way to discern a true albino, the white skin is secondary but still the best way to spot one with your own eyes.

There are many albino variations according to authors Dagmar Fertl and Patricia Rosel, and these different variations are linked to mutations of 12 different genes. All this information is based on human subjects by the way, but we are mammals and marine mammals are mammals, so maybe some of the characteristics are similar. But at this point scientists don’t know if all the albino traits play out the same.

Coloring in the skin is linked to the pigment melanin, and without melanin there is no coloring, hence white skin. According to the encyclopedia article, this is linked to a mutation in the tyrosinase gene where defective enzymes lead to an inability to produce melanin. And marine mammals without melanin are out there, white humpbacks, sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins and Antarctic fur seals to name a few.

Being albino could be a problem because white skin stands out against blue water making albino marine mammals easier to spot by predators and they may have poor eyesight like humans. But it’s good for whalewatchers because they are easier to spot and make for a thrilling and rare sighting.

If you live in Southern California and have the opportunity to go whale watching with Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari, there’s a chance you might see an albino common dolphin. “Casper” has been spotted near Dana Point on occasion. It’s a chance to see a living ghost, making it an encounter you will never forget.

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